Internet filters often block legitimate content, new study finds

Legitimate content often is blocked by school and library Internet filters when students are conducting research, according to a new study by a university librarian.

Lynn Sutton, director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, found that many school and library filters were overzealous in their attempts to protect students from inappropriate online content. She presented her study, "Experiences of High School Students Conducting Term Paper Research Using Filtered Internet Access," Oct. 8 at the American Association of School Librarians conference in Pittsburgh.

"I would warn school districts that if they are going to take this drastic step of preventing what is really constitutionally protected speech they need to be careful," Sutton said of Internet filtering.

Sutton interviewed two English classes at a Michigan high school, one advanced rhetoric and one basic composition, that had been assigned term papers to be researched on school library computers. She said almost all of the students interviewed experienced some kind of problem with legitimate sites being filtered.

Sutton said library filters blocked Web sites from the American Medical Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Motion Picture Association of America. She said this is an example of "overblocking," the term used when legitimate sites are blocked.

Sutton said "overblocking" is often a result of filters picking out key words deemed inappropriate.

For example, Sutton said, the Motion Picture Association site was probably blocked because the filter picked out words such as "nudity" and "sexual violence" in film rating descriptions. The American Medical Association site was blocked because of references to medical marijuana.

Sutton, who conducted the research in spring 2004 for her doctoral dissertation, said the high school students she observed were able to responsibly deal with an unfiltered Internet. She added that if schools decide to filter, grade level should factor into the decision.

Sutton said Internet filtering makes the "digital divide" even more problematic. She said research has shown that the less money a family has the less likely it is for them to have access to the Internet outside of public schools and libraries. The more affluent a family is, the more likely it is for them to have access to the Internet at home.

This results in poor students often having access only to computers with filters, limiting access to information, Sutton said.

She said this is disturbing because the government can effectively set an agenda of what students can view on the Web.

by Clay Gaynor, SPLC staff writer

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